Review: Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

 Way way way back in 2003, a successful film was released called Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.   Starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, it detailed the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his sidekick Dr Stephen Maturin as they sailed the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars.  My mother’s natural reaction was to go and buy the book – mine was to wait until she’d finished and then read it after her.  Over the past nine years, my mother has purchased every single one of the twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels – I however have never managed to finish even one.  This is embarrassing, I started this book at least seven times and never been able to finish the flipping thing.  However … drum roll … I put aside everything else I was reading, powered through and reached the finish line.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved to complete a book.

Why has it taken me so long?  Lots of reasons – my mother has had a tendency to snatch it back periodically, then I did go to university for five years (my degree was long) so there were several obstacles in my way.  The other problem was that it is not the kind of book that you can pick up again easily after a break – a lot of the time I read with the same sense of benign confusion that I used to get when I read a book in French.  This book is not in French, it is in Sailing Language.  With the foc’sles and mainsails and this and that – I Don’t Get It.  The thing is though that if this series was a simple How To concerning the British Navy during the early nineteenth century, it would not have been anything like as successful.  Patrick O’Brian has been hailed as the best historical novelist of all time and when I finished this I could entirely see why.

I read a fair bit of historical fiction.  A few entries ago, I wrote up Katherine and for my sins, I have read a fair bit of Philippa Gregory even though aside from The Other Boleyn Girl, I think that everything she writes is dressed-up drivel.  Alison Weir is a noted and popular historian but yet her historical fiction is total drivel.  What is it that makes good historical fiction?  I think the answer is fairly simple – you need to believe that the person really is experiencing that particular time period and the story needs to work independently of the history.  So a lot of the time Philippa Gregory’s characters just seem really stupid and Alison Weir wastes too much time trying to be historically accurate.  They both fall down.  Then there are those who make it look effortless – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a prime example, as is the Flashman series.  When you’ve read one of those, it does make the likes of Ms Gregory even more irritating … Patrick O’Brian though has created a believable flesh and blood seafarer – he seems realistic even to a complete landlubber such as myself.  So hats off to Patrick O’Brian, he is exactly what people say he is – head and shoulders above the rest.

Aubrey and Maturin on screen

(Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany)

Master and Commander is the first in the Aubrey-Maturin series, Jack is merely Lieutenant Aubrey and suffering sadly on land waiting for the command that should surely be his.  He meets Stephen Maturin and although first impressions are not favourable, they start to become friends.  Jack finally receives the commission to take command of the Sophie and realising that his new friend Stephen is both utterly penniless and living rough and also a qualified physician, he invites him along for the ride.  Stephen Maturin is a necessary character since he has absolutely no naval experience at all, meaning that the other sailors have to explain everything to him in a way that would otherwise seem awkward.

Still, Stephen is not just a mere foil, he is amazing – an Irish-Spanish spy with a medical licence.  Some of the best one-liners come from him, he gives the outside perspective in a frankly fairly mad nautical world.  When Jack surveys the ship during the storm and proudly notes to Stephen that she is wonderfully dry, the bedraggled Stephen is confounded.  My absolute favourite line though was when Stephen delicately broke the news to Jack that he had contracted the pox by stating tactfully that his lady acquaintance had been ‘too universal in her favours’.  Jack is mortified, he thought he had been playing it safe by having an affair with an Admiral’s wife.

It was tricky to follow how all of the nautical shenanigans … still, this isn’t the only thing the books are about.  This one really shows Jack getting used to himself as Captain – the loneliness of being #1, this is something I’d never really considered but you can imagine that being effectively at work months at a time and having to maintain the Captainly aura at all times would cause a bit of a strain.  The whole seafaring life at that time is really odd to think about – I remember being in St Paul’s a few years ago and seeing all of the naval tombs, doing the maths and realising that these men were sent to sea at the age of eleven or twelve.  The idea of being put out into such an unforgiving environment by your parents seems a bit mad although I know it was all done to give them a fair chance at promotion and getting by in life.  It was a relatively new profession in the grand scheme of things  – these are the naval officers of Jane Austen’s era, the Captain Wentworths and Admiral Crofts – basically what the men were doing while the girls were at home fussing.

Will I read more of this series?  Possibly … they’re all sat on the shelf in the spare room in my parents’ house so the option’s there.  I’m just so grateful to have this one ticked off my To Read list that I think I’ll leave it for a little while.  I’ve heard someone complain about O’Brian’s ‘flat prose’ which I do sort of get but a lot of the time the humour comes in the matter-of-fact way he states disastrous situations.  The central characters are absolutely hilarious – Jack is a genius of a sailor but utterly hopeless/total hazard on land while Stephen is highly respected by all on board for his medical skills (one young boy who turns his back on Stephen is roughly asked “Where are your f***ing manners?”) while also being subject to kindly condescension because of his nautical ignorance.  This is the book that introduces their friendship and you can see that they’re a good partnership – Jack does the seafaring while Stephen stops him from making an idiot of himself, they’re like Holmes and Watson of the naval world.

So, finito at long, long last – this book will no longer look at me accusingly when I’m at the homestead.  We’re all done here … I am breathing a big sigh of relief.  Back to the twenty or so other books staring at me accusingly back at my actual home …

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Master and Commander (Vol. Book 1) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels) by Patrick O'Brian
Published by W. W. Norton on November 17th 1994
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Action & Adventure, Sea Stories, Sagas, Men's Adventure
Pages: 416
ISBN: 9780393058956

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4 thoughts on “Review: Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

  1. Yes!! That’s it exactly – for me, breathing in the atmosphere of those books is a bit like the way you feel about the Harry Potter universe: it is complete and fully realised on its own terms. Stepping into these books is like settling down to spend time with some old friends whose banter and sense of humour you have always liked. I do have a strong sense of O’Brian’s superb touch with language: you can really tell that he was a linguist, as he has that ear for the rhythms of language and has some fun with little linguistic in-jokes, which make me howl with laughter. And then, as you read through the books, you really see how many common idioms in British English have their roots in Royal Navy terminology: by and large, toe the line, room to swing a cat, to chew the fat, on the wrong tack, to name but a few.

    1. Well – I know you know the books a great deal better than I do, but I do remember the feeling of it being a pleasant one. I should really try the next one – it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it, I’ve just been busy! It was definitely one of the most convincing pieces of historical fiction that I can ever remember reading. And you’re definitely right about the language thing – we’re a sea-faring nation but it’s part of our linguistic heritage that has been slightly lost.

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